Treif Food That Looks Kosher

Eating out and Semachot

Congregant to rabbi: ‘Don’t worry rabbi, the food is kosher, it’s just not under supervision. If you want, we’ll get you a special meal.’

Jews love eating and they celebrate their great family occasions with food. The selection of the catering will be a major decision, one which the rabbi may only find out about some while after it has been taken. At least in densely Jewish areas, the variety and sophistication of kosher catering have never been greater, yet for a number of reasons, some choose non-kosher alternatives. From a rabbi’s perspective, this is a great shame; a wedding or bar/bat mitzvah is a key moment in one’s Jewish life, a time to renew and enhance one’s relationship with God through Judaism. Serving non-kosher food demonstrates that the ‘Jewishness’ of the occasion is superficial and the commitment of the celebrants to a real Jewish affair negligible.

Yet someone who arranges a non-kosher dinner knows just what they are serving to their guests; what of the ubiquitous ‘kosher-style’ food? ‘Kosher-style’ catering comes in different guises, calling itself variously: ‘kosher-but-not-supervised’, ‘strictly-kosher-but-without-beth-din-fees’ and ‘we-buy-only-kosher-products-you-can’t-tell-the-difference’. Of course, it is possible that everything served is actually kosher, but this is highly improbable. Here is a very short (and by no means exhaustive) list of issues:

  • There is no way to verify that every product used is kosher (hundreds of ingredients are used to prepare every banquet, many very similar to non-kosher alternatives).
  • The event cannot be kosher unless the food is prepared in a dedicated kosher facility or the kitchens have been completely kashered by a knowledgeable person.
  • The cooking, kitchen, serving and dining utensils must be used exclusively for kosher catering; they cannot have been used previously for anything non-kosher, nor obtained from a regular hire company.
  • The correct separation between meat and milk demands distinct kitchen areas and dedicated utensils for each, with no possible confusion or cross-over.
  • Careful scrutiny is required to ensure that vegetables are free of infestation, eggs contain no blood-spots and that the cooking of the food is conducted under Jewish supervision.

Not one of the above-mentioned is stringency, indeed each is a basic constituent of kashrut observance; according to most opinions, kosher food cooked in clean utensils previously used for non-kosher food is Biblically forbidden. Regrettably, and there is no pleasant way to say this, all cooked food prepared in these circumstances is treif beyond question; indeed the diner at such a simchah is likely to work his or her way through a considerable number of Biblical prohibitions in the course of the meal. Since the basic ingredients are kosher, the food looks acceptable, but is not; from a Jewish perspective, the difference between this food and ‘really treif’ fare, is that one only feels guilty when eating the latter!

It is improbable that celebrants of the ‘kosher-style’ simchah are aware of all this; they are not serving their guests non-kosher food out of malice, yet they unwittingly give the impression that everything is in order, when it is not. Better to tell one’s guests in advance that the food won’t be kosher and let them make their own decisions; better still, opt for a kosher caterer.

All this leads to a discussion of rabbinical policy, for inevitably rabbis get caught up in this issue. Obviously, one guides one’s congregants to plump for a kosher affair, yet one is always aware of a lurking concern – striking the right balance between encouraging Jewish observance and being so demanding that the punter might ‘take his business elsewhere.’ The policy of the London Beth Din expresses this sensitivity; it will not authorise a chuppah scheduled to take place at the same venue as a non-supervised banquet (obviously this includes ‘kosher-style’), yet will do so if the chuppah is held in a Shul with the festivities elsewhere.

I know of colleagues who impose restrictions on the extent of bar mitzvah celebrations for those who will follow the Shul service with a non-supervised dinner and others who ignore the issue altogether. Some rabbis will attend a ‘kosher-style’ or even ‘not-even-trying-to-look-kosher’ simchah and eat a kosher airline meal, yet others feel that to do so confers legitimacy on the occasion and its catering arrangements. I admit to having declined a number of invitations on this basis and to having persuaded at least one family to hold a kosher function after all when they realised that I wouldn’t otherwise attend. It is actually very hard to achieve the right balance and unlikely that one does so in every case.

Rabbis and communal leaders must also be acutely sensitive to the reasons that lead people to choose non-supervised catering. For some it may be weakness in their commitment to Judaism or the supposed low quality of the catering, although today many kosher caterers offer superlative cuisine and service. Yet for others, it is the perceived cost of hosting a kosher affair. There are modest ways of catering a beautiful kosher simchah, but the client may not find out about them without assistance. Kashrut authorities are always helpful to families who approach them in this regard, but communal rabbis and lay leaders must be at the forefront of ensuring that no one opts for a non-kosher simchah due to the cost.

The discovery that ‘kosher-style’ catering does not produce kosher food may be disconcerting, yet it indicates that kashrut deserves to be taken seriously. In common with every area of Jewish law, it offers a nuanced, sophisticated system of rules and thus penetrates far beyond the superficial appearance of the food. We need to be real about this: fish served in non-kosher restaurants is not kosher, unchecked salads may be crawling with bugs and supermarket pre-packed meals often contain a myriad of hidden animal derivatives. These foods may look kosher, but they are not.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission. 

Halachic Child

Great kids!

In an attempt to catch the last moments of holiday spirit, my wife and I took our children to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in West London on the day after Pesach. It was a magnificent day, matched by the beauty and diversity of the displays at the gardens. I hadn’t visited Kew Gardens for many years and had forgotten just how glorious it is. Our children, while initially reluctant to be schlepped along, enjoyed themselves in the end. A couple of comments they made there prompted me to write.

We were visiting the palm house admiring the trees when my elder son, who is seven, pointed at a gigantic leaf and asked, ‘Daddy, if this were Romaine, how many kezaytim (olive-volumes) could you get from that?’ This was a reference to the quantity of lettuce required for bitter herbs at the Seder. The answer, of course, was hundreds, but that is beside the point.

A little later, we were standing near some steps leading up to a building. At the side of the steps was a smooth concrete incline topped by a horizontal slab. Two of our daughters, aged eight and seven, observed that the structure looked like the altar in the Temple</st1:place></st1:city>. When I smiled uncomprehendingly, they kindly explained that the incline was the ramp leading up to the altar and the slab at the top was the altar itself. Obvious, really.

All this gave my wife and me much pleasure: we are blessed with great kids who are a credit to us and to their schools. My students constantly laugh at how much the children are like me. To a degree they are right, yet in so many ways, they see the world through very different eyes to mine. To be sure, I am the product of many years of intensive Yeshivah and Kollel education, yet I did not begin my development in the same type of family or schooling to which they are exposed and do not see the world in the same way that they do. We are fortunate to live in a Jewish community where we can provide our children with an outstanding, balanced education: their school day may cover a spectrum from a Rashi to arithmetic, Mishnah to music, cholent to Tchaikovsky. Nonetheless, they observe the world primarily though the prism of the Torah: their first understanding of every encounter involves a halachic (Jewish legal) or hashkafic (Jewish conceptual) perspective.

I do not, and probably never will, look at a tropical plant at Kew Gardens and automatically think ‘quantities for bitter herbs’. My eight-year-old daughter was slightly bemused by the fact that I did not instantly recognise the concrete structure outside the temperate house as a miniature altar.

‘Echad Mi Yodea’ (who knows one?) is a curious song appended to the Seder. It’s a little like ‘The house that Jack built’, progressing from one God, through two tablets, three forefathers, etc. and ending with the thirteen attributes of Divine mercy. The great Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, zt”l, offered a wonderful insight into why it appears at the Seder: it is a type of Jewish word-association game. In the regular version, I say ‘fork’ and you say the first word that comes into your mind, perhaps ‘knife’, and we continue from there. The Jewish version, sung after a long night of absorbing the wonders of Jewish national origins and praising God, is ‘Echad Mi Yodea’. When I say ‘one’, the first thing that should pop into your mind is ‘God’, ‘four’ should be ‘matriarchs’, ‘seven’ ‘Shabbat’, etc. It’s a kind of test as to how successful the Seder has been.

In the same vein, the development of what my wife cleverly termed ‘Halachic Child’ is a good indicator of the Jewishness of the child’s home and schooling. It’s not to say that the child will not also think of ‘The Beatles’ in response to the number ‘four’ or ‘wonders of the ancient world’ for ‘seven’, but it’s the first answer that counts. I’m so proud of my children.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Pesach And Jewish Continuity

Pesach 5767

Can the message of Pesach retain its value and meaning in the world of 2007 – a world of MRI scans, al Qaeda and Richard Dawkins? This is not just a question about Pesach, but also about the whole of Jewish life and thought. If Pesach is no longer relevant to our children, then we have no hope of successfully promoting the concept that the Jewish past must inform the Jewish future. If we find ourselves unable to relate to the national life of the Jewish people, if we fail to be inspired by its achievements and governed by its rules, then we may as well shut up shop now, and go with the flow of assimilation. The Pesach experience, especially the Seder, is seminal to the process of what is sometimes called Jewish Continuity. In its true form, Jewish Continuity is certainly a precious goal, something for which we all strive and hope. Every person reading this wants to have Jewish grandchildren who are not merely Jewish by name, but have a sense of Jewish history, an appreciation of Torah concepts and ideals and at least a modicum of observance, all coupled with the will and enthusiasm to impart all of that to their children.

It is clear that in Anglo-Jewry we have not broadly succeeded in doing this. To be sure, the observant community is growing in leaps and bounds, but elsewhere, in the heartlands of Anglo-Jewry, the message is not getting through. To be sure, there are many notable exceptions: Shuls, communities and outreach programmes that have had a major impact, but many places, the prognosis looks dire.

One of the keys to success is persistence. There is a beautiful parable for this, which will make things clearer. (It also involves a frog, which makes it suitable for Pesach!) A frog once fell into a bowl of milk. It realised that it had no hope of survival, as the milk was deep and the walls of the bowl too high to climb – the best that could possibly managed would be to tread water / milk for a while until exhaustion would set in and drowning became inevitable. So, thought the frog, why bother – I might as well drown now and save all the trouble. He shut his eyes, stopped struggling and drowned. A second frog fell into a bowl of milk. After making the same assessment as his lantsman, he closed his eyes and drowned. A third frog fell into a bowl of milk, but this one was a fighter. He paid no heed to the hopelessness of the situation, and ignoring all evidence to the contrary, remained convinced that he would survive. So he paddled and kicked with all his might, determined to keep going. As his flailing became more and more vigorous, the milk began to turn into butter and when most of it had solidified, he simply climbed out, tired, but alive to jump another day. The application of the parable is clear – continuous efforts, despite perilous conditions, are likely to produce some results. The Haggadah tells us:

In every generation, one is obliged to see oneself as if one has personally come out from Egypt…. Not only did the Holy One, may He be blessed, redeem our ancestors, but He redeemed us with them…

Can we really see the exodus as a personal experience – didn’t it happen over 3300 years ago? The truth is that unless we see Judaism as an experience of the here and now, we are finished. History is interesting, but by definition, it lives in the past – in books and memories, but not in the present. We can’t sell people a history book as a lifestyle, unless the experiences are direct and meaningful today.

Pesach and the Seder represent for us the conjunction of history and present. Rabbi Berel Wein, a well-known contemporary Jewish thinker and historian, points out something very interesting about his own family Seder. He notes that as a child, he sat at his grandfather’s Seder, at which his grandfather recalled his own childhood experiences with his grandfather, a man who could remember the great 19th century ethical teacher, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter. At Rabbi Wein’s Seder, he sits with his grandchildren, who will be able, in due course and God willing, to share stories about their grandfather with their own grandchildren. Thus at one current Seder, we can see an experience potential spanning several generations. As Rabbi Wein points out, very few (less than 20) such structures are needed to bridge the gap between the exodus and the present day.

But to create meaning across the generations, tremendous effort is required. Indeed this only has meaning if the imperatives, ethics and goals of the past are shared with the present. Otherwise, in our minds, grandfather’s grandfather is a dinosaur, an artefact from a long-dead age, while grandchildren’s grandchildren inhabit a future unimaginably different from the world of today. The redemptive spirit of Pesach seeks, through our own efforts, to redress this – it links us to our past and, perhaps more importantly, it helps to assure our future. Only if we take Judaism and its wealth of ideas and experiences seriously can we say that we ourselves have been redeemed. We always have the chance to start afresh – to be redeemed and commence the path of spiritual growth once again. If we are prepared to do this, we, like the frog, may be able to climb out of the milk once and for all and create an unshakeable link across the generations. This is true Jewish Continuity.

Shabbat And The Single Jew

Just Shabbat

Much has been written about the predicament of mature singles in our communities, their frustration, sense of helplessness and feeling of exclusion from mainstream Jewish life. However, the religious fallout of long-term single-hood is less frequently addressed: singles commonly suffer from a lack of inspiration and religious burn-out. I would like to address one aspect of this troublesome phenomenon.

Many men and women use Shabbatot as opportunities to attend singles’ events geared to helping them find their life partner. These occasions are often professionally run and claim a good number of successes. While in principle they are a ‘good thing’, singles who attend them regularly are in danger of turning Shabbot into a means, rather than an end.

The purpose of Shabbat is no more than Shabbat itself: affirming one’s belief that God created the universe and building a joyful relationship with Him through the observance of the Shabbat laws. This tremendous experience is an end in itself, yet for many on the singles circuit, Shabbat has become a means to finding a mate, no longer an opportunity for spiritual enrichment. Shabbat is the cornerstone of Jewish observance and of the Jew’s rapport with the Divine: its proper observance and the integration of its message form the basis of a healthy religious identity. Robbing Shabbat of its power by using it as a means to achieve something else will have devastating religious consequences. A Jewish life lived over an extended period without a ‘real’ Shabbat will feel dull and uninspired; the person concerned may never realise why.

For some the need to use Shabbat in this way is so acute that missing a Friday night event may lead to a feeling of angst: if only I had gone along I might have met the ‘right’ one. The single person seeking a partner is caught on the horns of a dilemma: attending deprives Shabbat of its full meaning; not attending leads to feelings of torment that perhaps one has not explored every possible avenue. By way of example, a woman approached me recently for advice about attending a Purim party. She knew that there was only a slim chance of meeting someone suitable there, yet she felt that not going would leave her wracked with guilt. She took my advice and didn’t attend, instead devoting the evening to Purim pursuits: she later mentioned that focusing on the day alone enabled her to experience her most meaningful Purim for years.

Well-organised singles’ events have proved successful in introducing people who will eventually marry each other. They are often run by dedicated volunteers whose dearest wish is to contribute to the Jewish people by relieving the plight of singles who so wish to marry. Yet by running too many of them on Shabbat they unwittingly rob the day of its majestic potential for their clients. Perhaps more of these wonderful events could be held on weekdays, with just a handful on Shabbat.

One need not feel guilty or sad that a Shabbat has passed without finding a wife or husband. Of course, it would be wonderful to meet one’s bashert (destined one) en route, but it is not the purpose of Shabbat, or for that matter, Yom Tov, Purim or Chanukah. (In ancient times, it was an objective of Yom Kippur and the 15th Av, but that is another story!) To be healthy, holistic Jews we require inspirational, self-contained Shabbat and Yom Tov celebrations. We don’t need to use Friday night dinner to speed-date, Seder night as a chance to meet a girl, or Purim to surf the parties.

Why I Am A Boring Guest

Older Singles

What do the following four women have in common?

  • Andrea: management consultant, graduate of a seminary in Israel, summa cum laude graduate in business management, volunteer for a Jewish outreach organisation.
  • Channah: Kodesh teacher in a Jewish Girls’ High School, graduate of Beis Ya’akov seminary (classic Jewish higher-education college) and talented musician.
  • Sara: freelance computer programmer, Ba’alat Teshuvah (late-comer to religious life) of 12 years standing, graduate of Harvard and seminary in Israel.
  • Trudy: university lecturer in psychology, graduate of modern-style seminary in the USA and gifted artist.

While the connection may not be immediately obvious, they share the facts that they are sophisticated, attractive, deeply committed to lives dedicated to Torah and Mitzvot, and, wait for it, in their 30s and single.

Although the women are fictional (albeit loosely based on real people), the scenario is not. I (and many of my colleagues) observe this phenomenon in London, but it is happening everywhere. All over the world, there are hundreds of older observant single women who would love to get married, yet have been unsuccessful in finding a partner. I am not suggesting that there are no single men struggling with the trauma of single-hood, just that there seem to be a lot more eligible women around than men.

There is enough to fill a book about this situation, but on this occasion I shall confine myself to three brief observations.

The pain and frustration felt by older singles is barely appreciated by others in the community. Being 34 and unmarried in our community is not like being 22 and just a few years older: it is often an emotionally and religiously devastating experience. The long-term effects of living without a life-partner, devoid of the love, intimacy, support and sharing of life goals a successful marriage should provide, are immeasurable. It is seldom appreciated that remaining single impacts on many other areas of one’s experience and particularly one’s religious life. A common observation made by women in this situation is that they feel spiritually burnt-out and uninspired. They may find personal growth insurmountably difficult and struggle with other aspects of their Jewish lives: davening, learning, and enjoying Shabbat and Yom Tov are among the most notable casualties.

Older singles also feel disenfranchised by the observant community. Our communities tend to compartmentalise people – there are girls, newly married women, mothers, divorcees, widows, but mature singles scarcely appear on the religious community’s radar. The existence of these women disturbs the happy, simplistic vision of community shared by many within it, in which everyone falls into an idyllic marriage before the age of 23. It is assumed that there must be something wrong with those who didn’t or that they are ‘too fussy’, which avoids facing the reality of their existence and the need to treat them as functioning adults. Singles even feel that people speak to them differently from the way they speak to married women. This is especially painful for women who take important, often life-changing decisions in their professional lives. In short, the community gives vibes that infantilise unmarried women, contributing to their feeling of exclusion and failure. While conjuring up husbands may be extremely difficult, this aspect of singles’ distress is the responsibility of the community and is completely unnecessary.

The consequences for the Jewish community are also significant. A growing group of older women, all of whom would love to have been married years ago, are marrying late and subsequently having fewer children. Some otherwise fertile women may have no children at all. This is going to have a catastrophic effect on future Jewish demographics. Dealing with this issue must be considered an international Jewish priority.

These issues trouble me so much that I have become a boring guest, because wherever I visit, I ask the same question: do you know any eligible men? I invite you to share in this project and become a boring guest too.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

The Herd Mentality

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Tolerance and disagreement

The astonishing capacity of Judaism to welcome disagreement, tolerate and even validate a range of views (albeit within the system) on almost every issue is, in my opinion, one of its greatest strengths. Yet it is, perhaps, the most sophisticated aspect of real Torah thought; the Talmud (Chagigah 3b) acknowledges that it takes tremendous wisdom and effort to think this way, yet it is vital to learn to do so.

It is fascinating to note then when an outstanding attribute is native to the Jewish people, even outsiders can recognise it. A year ago, I read a fascinating book called ‘The trouble with Islam today’, by the controversial author Irshad Manji, which contains a number of really thought-provoking observations. In a chapter provocatively called ‘Seventy virgins?’ she considers the subject of herd mentality:

What I knew was that believers in the historically ‘reformed’ religions don’t operate on a herd mentality nearly as much as Muslims do. Christian leaders are aware of the intellectual diversity within their ranks. While each can deny the validity of other interpretations – and many do – none can deny that a plethora of interpretations exists. As for Jews, they’re way ahead of the crowd. Jews actually publicise disagreements by surrounding their scriptures with commentaries and incorporating debates into Talmud itself. By contrast, most Muslims treat the Quran as a document to imitate rather than interpret, suffocating our capacity to think for ourselves.

Now, Manji is hardly an expert on Judaism, but her comments really set me thinking about the parameters of tolerance and disagreement within Jewish thought. That more than one view in halachah (Jewish law) can be tolerated within the system is apparent from the proverbial ‘elu v’elu’ (a statement acknowledging that more than one view can be the ‘words of the living God’) but the imperative to accord respect to other views is less well known. In summarising three years of disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai (the schools of Hillel and Shammai), the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) comments:

As both (the views of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai) are the ‘words of the living God’, why did Beit Hillel merit that the halachah (Jewish law) be fixed according to their view? They were gentle and tolerant and they taught their own views and those of Beit Shammai and even expressed the views of Beit Shammai before their own view.

In his introduction to BeReishit (Genesis) the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, pre-eminent 19th century European sage) suggests that lack of tolerance for Torah viewpoints other than one’s own is the very cause of destruction. Writing about the religious leadership of the Templeera, he observes:

They were righteous, pious and toiled in Torah, but they were not diplomatic. Because of the hatred in their hearts for one another, they suspected anyone who conducted his religious life not in accordance with their view of being a Sadducee or a heretic. As a result, they came to horrible bloodshed and every known evil, until the Temple was destroyed. This vindicated what happened to them (the destruction of the Temple). Since God is upright he does not tolerate such ‘righteous’ people unless they are also diplomatic, not crooked, even if they act for the sake of heaven, for this causes the destruction of creation and the ruin of society.

I realised why I was thinking about Irshad Manji this week: her observations were dredged from the depths of my mind by my sadness at the monochromatic nature of much of the contemporary Jewish world, especially in Israel. Her comments depict the Judaism I know and love, the one I see in the Talmud and classic Jewish sources, the one taught me by my own rabbis and role-models, the one I try to practice and teach my children and students. They don’t, however, describe the Jewish world I see around me, one in which authoritarian pronouncements have become common, strongly-worded decrees seem to limit thought and practice, and variant opinions and their exponents are trashed, not discussed. We have reached the stage at which there is only one ‘acceptable’ view on most topics, the opinions of previously-well-respected Jewish thinkers are no longer considered party line; we have our own censored publications to ensure that no-one finds out about them anyway. Suggesting that this impacts only on a small part of Israeli society is to bury our heads in the sands of a global Jewish reality.

Hardly a week goes by without another decree: a few weeks ago it was the banning of higher-education courses for Israeli women, last week, the emphasis on policing ‘kosher’ clothes shops in religious districts. Is Manji right? Are we really ‘way ahead of the crowd’? Only just, I fear.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Walking The Walk And Talking The Talk

Rosh HaShanah 5767

At this time of the year, rabbis often encourage their flock to live good lives, study Torah a little, come to Shul more frequently and generally commit to becoming exemplary members of the community. To support this, all kinds of Jewish sources are mustered to bend the congregants’ ears into submission. What does Jewish tradition really promise those who actually succeed in living a purposeful and righteous life? The Talmud offers us a brief insight:

In the ultimate future, God will make a dance-circle for the righteous and He will sit in the middle of them in the Garden of Eden. Everyone will point to God with his finger.

<o:p></o:p>So after a life of righteousness, self control and altruism, what happens to our budding tzaddik when he reaches the afterlife? He gets to dance round and round and point to God, presumably for all eternity. A dance! Is that all? After an entire life dedicated to spiritual pursuits, is that the best we can hope for?

Of course, the Talmud is actually conveying a profound message in the form of an image. Regrettably, we often assume that the parables of the sages are simple fairy-tales, but if we are prepared to dig beneath the surface, we will always uncover the most uplifting concepts. As such, the dance-circle is a sophisticated image that may be understood as follows.

While it is not always apparent, there are many manifestations of Judaism – different styles of observance, degrees of engagement with the outside world and outlooks. Of course, all must be predicated on the belief in the historical truth of the revelation and the eternal imperative of Jewish law (devoid of these, of course, we don’t have Judaism at all). But part from these indispensables, there is considerable flexibility within the system. One of the wonderful things about Judaism is that, within certain parameters, there are a range of possibilities. This idea is expressed beautifully by the great mediaeval thinker Ritva:

When Moses went up to receive the Torah, for every subject he was shown forty-nine ways to prohibit it, and forty-nine ways to permit it.

God Himself presented us with a religious system that recognises that we aren’t all the same and that we each need some degree of individual expression in our religious lives. Interestingly, as this flexibility is God-given, the truth (or if we like, validity) of each manifestation is not compromised, as they are each a version of the Divine will. It’s an amazing idea – rather than there being one right or wrong way to live, we need to function within parameters. As an aside, this idea should not be considered licence to consider anyone’s personal preference a legitimate expression of Judaism, as there are clearly boundaries beyond which one may not go.

In this lies a challenge, perhaps one of the most important that we will face in our lives - recognising (always within the parameters) the validity of other peoples’ views. This can be immensely difficult; we all feel comfortable with those who share our particular world-view and perspective on Judaism; less so with those with whom we differ. We are often especially poor at respecting those people whose life-style seems very alien to ours; they quite probably feel the same about us!

Yet to profit from the flexibility of the system, we must authenticate the religious expressions of others. This takes a great deal of maturity, but it is extremely rewarding. Through doing so one gains a breadth of perception, and understanding of others, a sense of love and tolerance for those with whom we disagree.

This is the meaning of the dance-circle of our original source. Note that the righteous dance in a circle, not a conga! The centre of the circle is equidistant from every part on its circumference. (As a mathematician, I can tell you that this defines a circle!) Each person on the circumference has a slightly different angle on life, a different form of traditional Judaism, yet is equidistant from God. No one is closer than any other and each can point to God and perceive Him from their perspective. But here’s the really exciting bit – as they dance round the circle, they experience the world from the viewpoint of each of the others in the circle. This is the greatest reward on offer – a direct perception of God with the maturity to appreciate the world through the eyes of others.

It would seem to take a lifetime to righteousness to reach this level of personal maturity. This Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is a great time to start working on this aspect of personal growth. It is common in all parts of the community to view anyone to the ‘left’ of oneself as a dropout and any to the ‘right’ as a lunatic. Even the nomenclature ‘left’ /‘right’ is unhelpful in this quest. We are poor at tolerating difference within the observant community and mistakenly expect our children to all turn out the same way as each other. When one thinks about the extent of this problem in our families and communities, one quickly realises just how elusive the dance-circle really is. But one must try to take those first faltering steps along it: try by listening carefully to the viewpoint of a member of the Jewish community with whom one usually disagrees, consider, at least for a moment, that a man dressed in Chassidic clothes may lead a rich and sophisticated Jewish life, recognise that a child may need encouragement to express Judaism in a way different from his or her parents.

The Last Tisha B'Av

Events in Israel and beyond

The Jewish people are having a pretty rough time at the moment. The disturbing events in Israel are compounded by the lack of balance and what one can only reasonably call hatred in much of the media. I believe that history has carved a role for us as victims and when we step out of this, even by defending ourselves, the world finds us inexplicable. That every one of the hundreds of Hezbollah rockets fired on Northern Israel has been deliberately aimed at civilian targets seems to have escaped the attention of the press, as has the fact that Hezbollah locates its weapons in civilian areas, with the obvious consequences. We are damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

But we shouldn’t really expect any different; these problems are just part of the harsh reality of galut – exile, of living in an unredeemed world. Some years, relating to the horrible reality of exile at Tisha B’Av has been difficult, but this year I suspect it may be easier.

We may accuse the media of bias, holding us to standards of behaviour it expects of no other people, but when we think about it, it can be no other way. Either we are God’s people, or we are not. Either we have a ‘special’ covenantal relationship with Him, or we do not. Either we are the ‘am segulah’ – the treasured nation of God, or we are not. We are, indeed, all of these things and by calling us to higher standards than those demanded of others, the nations of the world corroborate our special status. They may not admit it, or even be aware if it, but by expecting far more from us than they expect of themselves, they unwittingly uphold our unique place in the family of Mankind.

As we dip our bread in ash at the pre-Tisha B’Av meal, let us think also of the many people whose lives have been reduced to ash in Israel and in Lebanon.

As we sit on the floor to mourn for the Temple, let us think also of those sitting on the floor in shelters in Northern Israel.

As we mourn our beloved Temple, let us think also of those who have lost loved ones in the conflict.

As we cry the bitter tears of exile, let us think also of the tears of suffering of adults and children who have lost their livelihood and homes.

As we read Eichah and the Kinnot, let us also lament Mankind, our failures, moral weakness and inability to get on with one another.

But Tisha B’Av is also about hope and the future. It may be a day of mourning, but it is a kind of ‘festival’ of hope for a better world.

As we read the final line of Eichah, let us really believe that God will finally ‘restore our days as of old’ this year.

As we read Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi’s ‘Tzion’ poem, let us reflect on the beauty of Israel, its inimitable spiritual character and our ongoing responsibility to ‘inquire about the welfare’ of its prisoners, which is so apt this year.

As we sing the dirge ‘Eli Tzion’, let us remember that the whole, inscrutable process of history is ‘like a woman in her labour pains’; there will be a happy ending to the saga.

Wishing all readers a meaningful and redemptive day, the last Tisha B’Av.

The Tools Of War

Football and its folibles

The World Cup has just ended, bringing the planet’s greatest football tournament to another nail-biting finish. It’s no secret that I’m not a football fan, but I observe, albeit with incredulity, the enjoyment that so many people get from watching it. Relaxation is most important in a pressured world and the show that has just come to an end has given millions of people a pleasurable diversion from real life for a few weeks.

But while there is much to admire about the skill of the footballers themselves, as well as the dedication of their fans, there is also a great deal wrong. The fact that the captain of the losing team could be sent off for assaulting another player during the final match and yet still be declared the best player of the contest, speaks volumes. The minor matter of the arrests of numerous England fans in Germany following their team’s defeat by Portugal and the disturbances in Jersey (whose population is 10% Portuguese) around the same time also bear mention. The fervour with which the fans approached the contest and the extent to which the media focused its attention on what is, after all, just a game, is quite remarkable. And fortunate is the country whose time zone is such that the matches fall out of work hours; when play is on during work-time, the number of ‘sickies’ mysteriously sky-rockets.

The number of football headlines may be extraordinary, but the nature of the coverage is no less remarkable. Each match is subject to the most intense analysis imaginable; it goes without saying that every possible aspect of the game is scrutinised. Before kick-off, we are treated to analysis of the selection of players for a team and how their morale is affected by the weather, the behaviour of their fans and a host of other factors. Once the match is in progress, we can read or watch a blow-by-blow account of the game so far, in depth critique of the captain’s strategy and share the pundits’ predictions for the remainder of the game. The slightest irregularity is subject to intense consideration; was the referee justified in castigating a particular player, was a tackle motivated by malice, the likely prognosis following a player’s injury, according to four different experts. On this theme, in the weeks leading up to the contest, the extent of interest in Rooney’s damaged foot was quite obsessive. When the match is over, the recriminations against the losing side begin; resignations, similar to those following lost elections (vis Beckham’s tearful exit), are not unknown. And of course, every moment of the game can be replayed in excruciating slow motion as we are encouraged to consider the long-term significance of a team’s victory or defeat for a national team and its supporters. When a team wins, the reports of the huge celebrations remain prominent for nearly as long as the parties themselves.

These are, quite frankly, the journalistic tools of war, for the only other human endeavour subjected to so much media scrutiny is war itself. When nations are at war, every detail of strategy and shot fired may affect the destiny of an entire people. As such, healthy media reserve the most penetrating tools of analysis for war, yet they are used, de rigueur, to describe the fortunes of 22 men kicking a ball around a field. The conclusion of this is inescapable – football is considered by a significant section of the populace to be of immense importance; the result of a big match really matters to people. It shapes their self-image, their pride in their country and their attitude to other nations. The celebrations of victory, often involving parading the champions as though they are war heroes, reflect the pride and sense of nationhood conveyed by success in a major tournament.

While many will pass all this off as harmless fun, I’m not convinced at all. When the emotions raised by merely observing a game are on a par with those engendered by war, we have lost something vital to the wellbeing of society. Many people really believe that supporters of other teams are baddies; how could they not be, as they are on the ‘wrong’ side. This leads to violence and to occasionally disturbing incidents of xenophobia. While (à la 1970’s cult film ‘Rollerball’) there are those who argue that containing these sorts of feelings within a sporting environment prevents them from spilling into the streets, it is obvious that societal sanction of such sentiments increases, rather than reduces, their nefarious influence. And blurring the distinction between those things that are truly life-significant and those that are actually just fun diversions from reality, has far-reaching consequences in all aspects of life.

Most troubling, though, is what the supremacy of football reveals about those people who believe in it - a profound lack of exposure to what we might term ‘real experiences.’ Whether the intense fervour of Man’s yearning for God, the challenge and meaning in developing a successful monogamous relationship, from a Jewish perspective: the celebration of a family Shabbat or the emotionally draining cycle of Tishrey festivals – so many in our disconnected world are denied ‘real experiences.’ Much of modern life consists of shallow, synthetic encounters; watered down emotions, superficial relationships and phoney ideology. In fact, the Western World almost completely fails to cater for what may be the most basic human necessity, the need to sense meaning and purpose in life. But the desire to identify with a cause and to experience meaning through it does not disappear because a society denies its existence. It will, automatically, find another expression. So profound is this human need that the media, conmen and others who recognise it will exploit it for their own disreputable ends.

The application of the tools of war to football matches is a symptom of an ailing society, one in which Man’s yearning for meaningful existence finds its expression itself through a game, but not in reality. And as society becomes more fragmented and superficial, the significance of events like the World Cup will surely grow; for those living in the UK, the spectre of the 2012 Olympics seems not all that far away…..

Thoughts On 17th Tammuz

Alan Senitt

This year, the start of the Three Weeks comes at a time when tragedy is in the air. The horrific bombings in India and the appalling murder in Washington of Alan Senitt, a prominent Anglo-Jewish activist, have hit the headlines in the last few days. The disturbing escalation of the conflict in our beloved Israel, however, is probably where much of our attention is focused.

From time to time, I get asked whether in the modern world we really need the Three Weeks of mourning for the Temple in Jerusalem, which begin today with the Fast of Tammuz. This year, that question seems entirely redundant, as there is so much obviously wrong with our world. The imperfections, lack of harmony and hatred seem to more evident than ever; this year, we have a lot to think about between now and Tisha B’Av.

Our prayers and thoughts are with the people of Israel, the family of Alan Senitt and the victims of the Mumbai carnage. We will add a chapter of psalms to the synagogue service once more in the coming weeks, as a prayer for peace, but our main responsibilities lie within our own lives. The elimination of conflict in our world starts on a small and personal scale – improving our relationships with our spouses and children, treating those who are unlike us with more respect, evincing greater tolerance for those of other beliefs. Judaism believes that the micro-act has macro-ramifications. If small-scale quarrelling leads to global conflict, then achieving small-scale harmony is the starting point for healing our world. The Sages tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred, yet use small personal, examples of dissent to illustrate their point.

May there be a rapid end to the conflict in Israel and harmony between peoples everywhere.